The age of indifference

Originally Published: February 12, 2004
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

So, do indictments make us care more that our athletic icons might be pulp-enriched?

Or, as has been the drift to date, do we continue to ignore the BALCO case and the inferences they spark as irrelevant to the show we all crave?

An open question, still.

The grand jury in the BALCO case returned a 120-page, four-way indictment Thursday of the firm's president, Victor Conte, its vice president, James Valente, famed track coach Remy Korchemny, and Barry Bonds' personal trainer, alleging each with running an illegal drug distribution operation.

The drugs? An alphabet soup of performance-enhancers.

The damage? To the principals, possible jail senetences. To their clients, shame and ignominy.

That is, if these indictments have actually convinced those people who were either defending the athletes as pure, clean and noble, or were fence-sitters who wanted a smoking gun before they committed themselves to take the leap into presumed guilt.

One suspects it hasn't.

In fact, one suspects that there have been, are, and will continue to be two camps on this issue. Those who believe that many athletes routinely take performance-enhancers of all stripes and varieties and are outraged by it, and those who believe that many athletes routinely take performance-enhancers of all stripes and varieties, yet could care less.

The indictments, sexy as they are (that is, if John Ashcroft speaking in public is your idea of sexy), are largely confirmation of what most people who follow sports already have decided to believe -- that lots of unnamed athletes are on The Cream, The Clear and any number of other forms of tricked-out Pez candies. And barring either Anderson or Korchemny turning state's evidence on their clients and saying, "Yeah, I gave it to them, and yeah they knew what they were getting," that's where the matter sits.

So what we have here then is more smoke. We still need the gun.

And for some, even seeing the gun may never do it.

You see, the overwhelming sense of Sports Nation when the BALCO grand jury was convened was, "Yeah, so?" There was no great shift in public opinion. Those who were already outraged could speak with greater conviction and clarity, but those who weren't, weren't listening anyway.

It was sporting gridlock then, and it is sporting gridlock now.

In fact, this argument breaks down on essentially the same lines as Strippergate -- those who think that pay-for-sashay recruiting tools are bad for impressionable ectomorphs everywhere, and those who wish fervently to be recruited as soon as possible.

Or Boobgate -- those who think Janet Jackson is the harbinger of civilization's end, and those who think she is just someone who exposed the Super Bowl halftime show to the ridicule it so richly deserves.

Or Politi-gate. Make your own judgments.

In short, there are Those Who Can Be Outraged, and Those Who Used To Be But Got Over It.

There is some great sociological study in here somewhere, and some eager John Nash-level sociologist who is just nuts enough to tackle it, but the interesting angle here is that there is no crossover allowed, no going back and forth, no bet-hedging.

You're a virgin, or you're not. And there's no undoing the do.

The BALCO case has been a fascinating study in hubris, starting with the notion that you can leave the paperwork lying around and still beat the tax cops. And maybe the feds can build such an air-tight case against the THG Four that they'll fall over each other to rat out every client they have.

If so, one should pity the track athletes involved most of all, because the IAAF and IOC seem ready to start putting heads on pikes.

The baseball figures involved, on the other hand, have the shield of the league's spectacularly libertarian drug policy (Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Hook Up In The Dugout) to keep them from missing as much as a day of work.

There will be increased heckling, some bad-natured abuse, some geuinely unpleasant interactions with fans, but there won't be any of that troublesome banning that track and field will indulge itself in the coming months and years. And Bonds, whose connection to the scandal is clearest and most notorious, will find a way to front it off on Those Who Dislike Me.

But the real debate will burn out, through this scandal and on to the next, and the one after that. There are those who want their sports to be a moral and honorable pursuit, and those who want their sports, and damn the presentation.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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